Sadhus & Yogis of India
Intro Shiva & Shaivas Vishnu & Vaishnavas Sadhvis Tapas Shaiva
Tapas Vaishnava Kumbha Mela Foreign sadhus Notes & Biblio Old photos
There are some words (concerning se+) I cannot write in full or in the normal way anymore, because these generate unwanted interest via search engines on the internet.
Austerities by Vaishnavas
The Vaishnavas and Shaivas have their own sect-specific preferences for various types of austerities, although there are austerities that are done by both.
Hatha yoga Phalahari, dudhadhari, fasting Arbandh
Panch agni Khareshwari Parikrama
Hatha Yoga
Though one might expect the Yogis (or Gorakhnathis) to be the experts in hatha yoga, since their founder Gorakhnath is credited with the 'invention' of hatha yoga (though it is much older, see below), but nowadays anyway it is mostly Ramandis who practise it, as far as I have been able to ascertain.
In fact, there are very few sadhus wo practise hatha yoga on a regular basis, except maybe early in their career.
The basic treatise on hatha yoga is the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali, which is dated between two hundred BC and three hundred AD. He was not the inventor of the method, but he systematized earlier doctrinal and technical traditions.
The techniques of hatha yoga may have been discovered by the ancient shamans and medicine-men in the pre-historic times of the ‘Horned God’.
In the course of many centuries, these techniques were further developed and to a certain extent spiritualized by Tantrics who, besides their occult rituals, did breath and body exercises to acquire supernatural powers, which were then the main desired effects.
In hatha yoga practice, the body, the breath and the mind are viewed as a functional whole, in which the action of one affects the others.
Restraint of the body through the practice of various postures lowers the rate of respiration; control of the breath diminishes the ‘waves’ of the mind, eventually leading to a state of pure, undisturbed consciousness.
Standing the world on its head, this baba practices yoga everyday, concluding his panch-agni tapasya. This posture is emblematic for the life of a sadhu, for by 'reversing all values', by acting contrary to human nature, they intend to speed up enlightenment.
This baba also wears a rope arbandh.
Although all yoga exercises have to be practiced in combination, the body, being the gross vehicle for the other functions and easiest to manipulate, is the primary object of attention.

Another aspect of breathing, necessitating its exercise and control, is prana. This is the ‘life-force’, the ‘vital air’, which is not the air itself but an imperceptible — to the gross senses — part of it.
Prana enters the body with the breath, and circulates through a likewise imperceptible network of subtle energy channels, the nadis.
The intake of prana can be augmented by breathing exercises, that is pranayama, and it can be directed to various parts of the body by yogic postures and mental concentration.

Ramatma Das

The various postures, known as asanas, cleanse the nadis and stimulate the flow of prana, and they lead to a perfect padmasana, or lotus-posture, which can be maintained for a long time without discomfort.
The padmasana is the basic posture for all mental exercises and meditation, since it aligns the nadis, ‘centres’ the body, and renders it immobile.

Ramnath Giri in padmasana
Phalahari, dudhadhari, fasting
With the exception of the Aghoris, all sadhus are vegetarian.
But there are quite a few babas, especially amongst Ramanandis who are known as phalaharis. They eat only fruit, 'wild' rice and a few other 'jungle' vegetables.
And there are a few, all Ramanandi, who restrict their diet even further and live on only milk, the dudhadharis.
Milk is more than just physical nourishment; as one of the five products of the sacred cow it is a spiritualizing substance.
All sadhus fast on ekadashi, the eleventh day after every full and new moon, when vegetarians eat phalahari food, phalaharis drink only milk, and dudhadharis drink only water.
Furthermore, some follow a jungle-diet, eating only uncultivated foodstuff, or a mono-diet.

Some sadhus maintain that it would even be possible to live on only water, and that is was done in the old days, or more incredibly still, to live only on air.
This rumour even reached Europe in the 14th century, in the Livre des Merveilles, that had it that there were people in India who 'lived on air' or the 'smell of flowers'.

Narayana Das, the saintly head of a large ashram, is a renowned dudhadari.
For over forty years, his only food has consisted of two glasses of milk per day.
He is a tatambari too: he wears only jute.
Kathia baba's and Lohalangari baba's
Celibacy is no doubt the most important austerity practised by sadhus. According to Yoga-metaphysics, se+ual energy, the fire of passion, is the main potential source of spiritual energy.
But as an aid to mental control of se+uality, physical restraint must sometimes be employed and one method is the continuous wearing of 'chastity belts'.

Kathia baba
This wooden arbandh (left) with its wooden langoti attached, may quite rightly be called a 'chastity-belt'; only this one is self-imposed.
The langoti can be unhooked for cleaning, but the arbandh of course stays on all the time.
It is a rather 'recent' austerity, not more than 300 years old, and it is only done by Vaishnavas of the Nimbarki Sampradaya.
This austerity, like most, is usually undertaken for a minimum of twelve years.
A dhoti usually, modestly, covers this wooden underwear, but as this Baba is about to take a bath, he has a valid reason for taking it off.

Lohalangari baba
Kailas Das (right) has worn this steel chastity-belt for fifty years. He is also known as Mauni Baba, for he did not speak for twelve years.
Jaganath Das has worn the wooden belt for thirteen years and has vowed to remain doing so for life.  
Panch agni, or 'five-fire-austerity'
Only sadhus belonging to the Ramanandi sect perform the five-fire-austerity, panch agni tapas, as it is called or, more commonly, dhuni tap.As one of the oldest forms of ascetic penance panch agni tapas is mentioned in ancient Hindu mythology.
Originally it involved surrounding oneself with four fires, sitting in the bright and hot midday sun which would be the fifth fire.

Nowadays is executed with varying numbers of fires, starting with five, and progressively increasing in number in the course of eighteen years, until the fires form a circle and the tapasvi carries a pot with fire on the head.

I must remark here that dhuni tap is executed in various degrees of seriousness and corresponding length of time per session. Some babas go through the motions and are finished in 15 minutes, others take 45 minutes to an hour.

There is some ostentatiousness involved too (as with most extreme austerities), for dhuni tap is usually done by the roadside, where pilgrims will certainly notice it. Awed, the pilgrims might be more willing to part with some donation.
Dhuni tap confers status in the sadhu community.

At the Ujjain Kumbha Mela of 1992, I noticed offerings of dung-cakes to dhuni tap babas just as it is portrayed on the 1729 engraving published in Tavernier.

In this seventh-century relief, Parvati is depicted surrounded by the fires of the four directions, and the fire of the sun (panchagni tapas). Shrisitaleshvaradeva Temple, Naresar, MP.
An integral part of the exercise is the ritual offering of foodstuffs to the smouldering heaps of cowdung, the holy fire, under the acompaniment of muttering mantras.
In this ascetic ritual the sadhu symbolically sacrifices himself to the fire, he has become the offering.
Having made offerings to his fires, the baba blows the shankh, or conch-shell, to invoke the deity. It is the musical instrument with which Vishnu produces the primordial sound of Creation, and it is only used by Vaishnavas.
This concludes the preliminary rituals, and now the Baba can sit in meditation.
Panch-agni-tapasya must be done for eighteen consecutive years, going through various stages.
The first stage involves surrounding oneself with five fires.
During the next stages there are seven, twelve, and eighty-four fires, culminating in ‘innumerable’, i.e. a circle of fires, and in the final stage a pot with fire is balanced on the head. Each stage is performed for three consecutive summers.
Each session of the fire-austerity is usually concluded with the performance of some hatha-yoga exercises.
Panch-agni is quite popular nowadays.

Preparing for his fire-austerity, a baba purifies the place with fresh cow-dung, arranges the heaps of fuel and the ritual paraphernalia, and takes a bath. Many babas smoke a chilam or two, to get in the right mood.
Then they sanctify their body by applying tilak.
When a group of ascetics is assembled, as for instance at a festival, they will perform dhuni-tap at the same spot, but each will do it more or less in his own time. Since the meditation and the repetition of the Lord’s name is a private affair, the Babas may cover the head with a cloth. It serves an even more practical purpose as well, for often the cloth is made wet, and so offers some insulation against the intense heat.
(see also plate of Picart, offerings of dung cakes by the faithful)
Performing a hatha yoga posture, the headstand, after the 'five-fire-austerity'.
The final stage of the fire-austerity is called kapar-dhuni, that is the fire (dhuni) in the bowl (kapal) on the skull (kapal).
The circle of ‘innumerable’ fires around the Baba is never completely closed, so the spirit may enter. Besides, a full circle would presume perfection, which only the Lord may claim.
Mahamandaleshwar Madhvacharge
Khareshwari, or 'standing baba'
A ‘standing’ Baba, who is called khareshwari, has taken the vow not to sit or lie down for twelve years. He may rest one leg by hanging it in the sling under his swing. It is a painful austerity: the swollen legs and feet tend to develop persistent ulcers.
Khareshwaris may walk about, but usually just hang in their swing in their corner — and stand.
Some, at a mela for instance, may turn this austerity into quite a performance. The lay pilgrims are always much awed by khareshwaris and consequently very generous with their donations, in money or in kind.
1003 A tree is the traditional place for the austerity of standing, not only because the swing can be attached to one of the branches, but also because of the baba’s identification with a tree, for it is also termed vrik-asana (or vrikshasana), meaning ‘tree-posture’.
And indeed, the khareshwari starts resembling a tree, his swollen feet look like roots, with a firm grip on the ground.

The austerity of ‘standing’ is performed by Ramanandis, Nagas, Naths and Udasin.

Bajrang Das, a 'standing' baba, who never sits down, day and night.
He sleeps standing too, hanging over this swing. A metal chastity belt covers his genitals.
Detail from Picart's 17th cent. engraving.
Parikrama means circumambulating, clockwise around a sacred object or space, for instance a deity in a temple, a temple or a mountain. This a normal practice for every Hindu as a means of communing with the sacred.

But it may be turned into a real austerity and then it goes by the name of dandavat parikrama, meaning ‘circumambulation like-a-stick’.

The pilgrim (or baba) stretches out on the ground, places a stone (or shell, or something) in front of him, stands up, makes a few paces to the stone, stretches out again, etc. This would be the ‘fast’ method, and as such is also performed by lay pilgrims.

But sadhus, as Rama Kishan Das portrayed here, usually stand up and stretch out on one spot 108 times, simultaneously reciting mantras. And then he will move one body-length. At the end of the day, when he has progressed some twenty body-lengths, the baba will mark the spot and continue the next day.
This way it will take him two years to go around the holy mountain.

Much more info and many photos in my book Contact Dolf Hartsuiker